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Stop Capital Punishment for U.S. Juvenile Offenders Now, Says Amnesty
Wed Sep 25, 7:26 PM ET

Jim Lobe,OneWorld US

A ban on the execution of child offenders in the United States--favored by a growing public consensus--is the next frontier for the death penalty abolitionist movement, according to Amnesty International, which is leading a campaign to end executions worldwide.

Amnesty International
Death Penalty Information Center
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights
OneWorld on Justice/Crime

In two new reports released Wednesday in Washington, D.C., the London-based organization said the time appeared ripe for ending the execution of individuals for crimes committed while they were still minors, especially following a Supreme Court decision last June which found that the execution of mentally ill people violated the U.S. constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.

"Multiple factors, including the fact that five states have barred the death penalty for offenders under the age of 18 since the last Supreme Court ruling, necessitate a new look at this noxious human rights violation," said William Schulz, executive director of the U.S. branch of Amnesty International (AIUSA). "Also, the battle against capital punishment for juveniles will continue to rage in state legislatures next year."

Amnesty said a major test could come as early as next month when the Supreme Court may decide to review the case of Scott Hain who is currently awaiting execution in Oklahoma. Hain, now 32, was sentenced to death in 1994 for a murder he committed aged 17. Earlier this month he appealed to the Supreme Court to review his case in light of its June decision banning execution of mentally ill.

The execution of people for crimes committed before the age of 18 is banned under all major international human rights treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Since 1990, only six countries--Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, and the U.S.--have executed people for crimes committed when they were children.

In the past decade, two-thirds of all known executions of child offenders were carried out in the U.S., according to the report. "The United States is the world's leading perpetrator of this universally condemned human rights violation," said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, who directs AIUSA's Program to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Eighty juvenile offenders are currently sitting on death row in prisons across the U.S.

Thirty-eight states and the federal government have statutes authorizing the death penalty for certain forms of murder. Of those jurisdictions, 17 have expressly chosen age 18 at the time of the crime as the minimum age for the imposition of the death penalty; another five have chosen age 17; while the remaining 17 use age 16 either through state law or by court ruling, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

In a 1988 case, the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of offenders aged 15 and younger at the time of their crimes was unconstitutional. One year later, however, the Court ruled in two separate decisions that executions of mentally ill prisoners or prisoners convicted of crimes committed when they were as young as 16 years old were permitted under the U.S. Constitution. Four out of the nine justices who heard the case, however, dissented from the majority decision, and even the majority gave notice that its views could change, noting that a "national consensus" against capital punishment in these cases had not yet developed.

Only five months later, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which explicitly prohibited the execution of minors, was opened for signature. The treaty has since been ratified by a record 191 countries. The only countries which have failed to do so are Somalia, which has had no recognized government since 1991, and the U.S.

In recent years, however, public opposition to using the death penalty against mentally ill people and minors has appeared to grow. A number of state legislatures have abolished the practice, and an increasing number of state governors and judges have also spoken out against the practice. President George W. Bush ( news - web sites), who, as Texas governor, presided over the most executions of any state during the 1990s, came out against capital punishment for those with mental illnesses last year.

"In some respects, there are signs of a firmer, and certainly longer-held, 'national consensus' against the execution of child offenders," according to the Amnesty report. "The international consensus on the juvenile issue is at least as strong as on the mental retardation issue, and more explicit in international treaty law."

"If the Supreme Court were to ignore the clearer global picture on the juvenile issue," it concluded, "it would be just one more sign of the arbitrary nature of the death penalty in the USA."

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